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June 22, 2005 12:08 AM

Broken: ATM language choice

AtmkioskSeth Godin writes:

Why does my ATM ask me what language I speak?
Why doesn't it know?
Why doesn't it remember next time?


For one reason:


Posted by: Jello B. at June 22, 2005 12:34 AM

whats really broken is that you have a choice, this is america, you damn well better be speaking and reading english.

Posted by: Dragon at June 22, 2005 01:57 AM

This sounds very similar to a comments posting from June 2.    ; )

Posted by: Rob at June 22, 2005 02:13 AM

Its just in case the person who stole your card doesn't speak the same language as you.

Posted by: I'm so funny at June 22, 2005 02:29 AM

Likely to minimize traffic to and from with the central server. I'm guessing it collects all the data -- account, amount, etc., and sends it to the server in one blort. (PIN, I'm guessing, is checked vs. the card, though I could be completely wrong.)

This was probably more important with the tech available when ATMs were first developed.

Posted by: Menolly at June 22, 2005 02:32 AM

It wouldn't even need to communicate to a central server. The language choice could be encoded on your ATM card.

Posted by: Maurs at June 22, 2005 03:43 AM

ive often wondered the same thing, i get sick and tired of having to choose my language ENGLISH as an *option* for damn near anything and everything. i know when i went to france and mexico and every other friggin country in the world having to find a damn translator to translate their language, which i can understand, im not a native of that country. but here in good old america, we have to be 'understanding' of the illegal aliens and non-english speaking people inability to learn our language... i hate that shit.

Posted by: nohablabeana at June 22, 2005 04:05 AM

Here in South Africa, our ATM's used to remember our language choice. It was encoded on the card. Now for some reason, I have to also manually select English every single time. Talk about taking a step BACK.

Posted by: Derek at June 22, 2005 04:10 AM

And another thing about ATM's and language. Have you ever noticed Braille on a drive-up ATM? SINCE WHEN do blind people drive???

Posted by: Michele at June 22, 2005 07:06 AM

The ATMs I use don't ask about language, but they do ask -- every time -- which account I want to deposit to or withdraw from, even though I have only one account. Definitely broken.

And for those of you who think the whole idea of having to *choose* English is broken, call your Congressman and ask him or her to support a Constitutional amendment making English the official language of the United States.

Posted by: stoo at June 22, 2005 07:46 AM

Forcing a langauage choice is defintely not something that happens at all ATMs. I have accounts at two different banks. For one, I'm asked my language each time. For the other, it provides me service in English.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at June 22, 2005 07:47 AM

I agree. This is broken, and they could easily encode that info on your card.

Posted by: Bob at June 22, 2005 08:56 AM

As for braille on ATMs, that has been previously discussed by the Straight Dope has a good explanation.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at June 22, 2005 09:33 AM

Well you'll all be glad to hear that Bank of America is ahead of the game. All their new ATMs (which are being replaced with blistering speed) have a touchscreen and memorizes your preferences to your account. Now it can remember language, amount of fastcash you want, and whether or not you want reciepts. It's pretty awesome and very fast!

Posted by: BoA Lover at June 22, 2005 09:45 AM

The un-awesome part of the new Bank of America ATMs is that they appear to run an embedded version of Windows, with these two apparent consequences noted at the machine at my workplace:

1) The default "ding.wav" sound is used as the alert to tell the user to remove their card, or get their cash, or whatever. To my computer guy mind, this sound repeated means "something is wrong", not "attention please". Add to this the fact that the repetition is not at fixed intervals; it sounds like someone is trying a bad command over and over.

2) The first two weeks it was here, I saw it five times. It was working twice, had a guy taking it apart three times.

But hey, it does remember that I read English.

Posted by: JM at June 22, 2005 10:50 AM

Blogged about this exact topic a few months ago... :-)

My new BoA ATM DOESN'T remember...

Posted by: Wes Miller at June 22, 2005 11:35 AM

What's really broken are the San Antonio Spurs!!

Posted by: Onery at June 22, 2005 11:42 AM

Hmm.. At the Bank of America i go to the ATM is old and crappy. It was a converted fleet ATM and it looks like that had some problems because it looks like it it is either stuck in 16 color or 256 color, but it runs like crap and it takes for ever for a transaction to go through.

JM: check this out. I think it has enough windows "dings" in it.

Posted by: unknown at June 22, 2005 12:10 PM

Interesting, how much personal information storage are people willing to tolerate, I wonder. Language preference seems pretty inocuous, but what if McDonalds remembered what you like to eat, and the last time you were in, and where? Or if Google remembered all your queries and started recommending pages without you even asking?

As far as I can tell, the only reason a company will collect personal information is if they can advertise to you with more precision. I have no illusion of privacy, every time I swipe my visa *somebody* is watching and connecting the dots, but the less information available in the database the better. I get enough advertising as it is.

I just wish that the choices on the screen lined up with the buttons. I've seen "english" and "espanol" straddling the toggles and I didn't know which one to hit.

Posted by: Rana at June 22, 2005 12:14 PM

You actually WANT your bank to know are remember more about you?! You regard convenience over privacy?

I would rather choose that the info maintained on me in minimal. Ha ha! As if the choice were mine.

And as to whether someone shoudl HAVE to use English in the U.S., have you ever traveled to a foreign country where you don't know the language at all? I was happy for the choice on ATM's in Finland and Estonia to interact in English. You would deny a visitor the choice to interact in his own tongue?!

*Ethnocentric xenophobia is what is broken.*

Posted by: Boris the Flippin' Spider at June 22, 2005 12:17 PM

It all depends on the protocol.

If you attempt to withdraw money from the only ATM in Carcross, Yukon Territory, Canada, you will notice that the machine goes through the complete transaction (language, pin, amount, account), and only then does it DIAL into the Interac server. Presumably, the gas station in which the ATM is located doesn't want to use a dedicated line for it, and wants to minimize the time spent on-line.

In these situations, the ATM cannot readily determine your language. Live with it.

Posted by: David Jones at June 22, 2005 12:22 PM

We live in the USA, it is the land where everybody wants to travel-to and be spotted-in. We have not just ILLEGALS but TOURISTS as well, we have to have different language options for our visitors otherwise, we will be like this tiny country in ASIA where you don't have a choice but THEIR LANGUAGE and if you press the wrong button... a police officer cuffs you without question especially if you are from the US because they think we are stupid that we ONLY know ENGLISH and think ENGLISH is THE ONE! ... now talk about being patriotic.

Posted by: Jax at June 22, 2005 12:47 PM

Waaaaaah, I have to press an extra button on the ATM. It hurts my wittle finger. Waaaaah.

There's too many foreign people here. I'm scared. Make them be more like me. Waaah.

This is broken. Someone fix it for me.


Posted by: Blob at June 22, 2005 12:56 PM

For those who feel that your card being capable of knowing what language you prefer is a threat on your privacy is ridiculous after all your card holds much more pertient information. A solution I would recommend is that all atm's be programmed for English (this is still America, right?) and then a non-english speaking visitor(residents should learn the language) would have a button to press to be able to toggle through many language choices to their desired one.

Posted by: Kent at June 22, 2005 01:06 PM

here's another suggestion since atm's should be designed for the quickest use possible for security reasons why not be able to connect to the atm with your cell-phone as you approach the atm type in your p.i.n. make your requested transaction including would you like a receipt? Then when you step up to the machine insert your card re-enter your p.i.n. and your request is processed automatically. Final screen do you desire another transaction? yes no then proceed accordingly.

If they can manufacture a way for you to purchase a soda from a vending machine I'm certain this is possible.

Posted by: kent at June 22, 2005 01:35 PM

I really don't have a problem with having to choose english when I visit one of the few (at least in my region) atm's that have a language choice.

What would be nice is if we could standardize on the interface and buttons so that each new ATM isn't a learning experience.

I've been to ATM's where when viewed from my eye level choices line up with different buttons than when viewed head on. I acutally have to stoop down to make sure that everything is lining up properly.

Posted by: Joshua Wood at June 22, 2005 02:00 PM

Hey Blob, maybe you're perfectly comfortable with these extra steps, but there are a lot of people out there that aren't. My definition of "broken" is something like this ATM situation: some people don't mind it, other people hate it. If there were arguments that this extra step was a good thing, then that would be different.

This used to be a predominantly English-speaking country, now everything is split up in English and Spanish. The primary reason for this is to give illegal aliens the ability to get around in our society more easily, but really it's just giving them an excuse not to learn the language.

This direction is damaging because I'm less likely to get a job in many places because I don't speak Spanish. Maybe you just live in an area that is not saturated with illegal aliens. The DC/northern VA area is packed because of the vast amount of landscaping and construction opportunities.

As for the ATM issue, here's a solution: When you put your card in, it asks for your PIN. At the bottom of the screen, it says "Press here if you speak Spanish", but y'know, it would say it in Spanish. Assume I speak English because that is the primary language of the U.S. (or it used to be), but allow for everyone else to choose their own language. We are supposed to design things for the majority, and allow other options for use by the minority. Instead, companies just seem to be inconveniencing everyone equally.

Posted by: Manni at June 22, 2005 02:07 PM

"And as to whether someone shoudl HAVE to use English in the U.S., have you ever traveled to a foreign country where you don't know the language at all? I was happy for the choice on ATM's in Finland and Estonia to interact in English. You would deny a visitor the choice to interact in his own tongue?!

*Ethnocentric xenophobia is what is broken.*"

you do know that english is almost the universal language, almost everyone in other countries take this as their second language. Most of the Canadians speak english, and so do most of the Englanders and Australians, its also very popular in Japan

Posted by: Dragon at June 22, 2005 02:19 PM

Hi - I live in Quebec - where people speak both English and French – and the ATM makes you select what language you want each time even though it would appease the French if the program automatically loaded up in French. Lately, I have been seeing ATMs that allow you to choose Chinese, Japanese, German.. I guess it is good for the millions of tourists and foreign exchange students. Last year, I was completing a Masters degree in Business and about half of the students there were new immigrants from China who spoke MINIMAL English (and they somehow managed to get better grades then me - go figure) - having the choice to select Chinese probably makes their life easier...

Posted by: Adina at June 22, 2005 02:20 PM

Bigotry is alive and well in good 'ole US and A. Maybe that's what's broken?

It is a person's right to conduct personal financial business in the medium, language, location of their choice. It is called accessability.

Next time you have a problem with immigrants, consider that all white people in the US were immigrants. Oh, and English is derived from several languages: German, French, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Spanish, etc. So white boys and girls, get your own language and leave them other "foreen" languages alone! And stop using the number Zero, that was invented by non-Americans also, and Mathematics in general.

If you don't like it, why not learn to hate people that are not like you...that's a good solution, right???

Posted by: Big at June 22, 2005 02:55 PM

Mmmh... this kind of reminds me of a little joke I've heard before...

Q. What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A. Bilingual

Q. What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

A. Trilingual

Q. What do you call someone who only speaks one language?

A. American

Posted by: mmm at June 22, 2005 02:56 PM

On a quasi-related note, I ran an impromptu usability test on a WalMart self-scanning checkout kiosk by selecting the "Spanish" option (my poor Russian and Latin are better than my sad Spanish). I figured that if I could get through the checkout process with Spanish auditory prompts, it would give a clue of the usability of the device. Everything went off without a hitch, though I was already familiar with the process. The experiment made me wonder, though, if returning users could have the option to hear less auditory feedback unless something gets our of whack?

Posted by: Sean at June 22, 2005 03:14 PM


I sometimes pick languages on ATM machines that I don't know just for fun. It's much more fun to take out $40.00 from my Oushbaguugen then my checking account.

Also, like a number of other readers, I was pretty surprised to see the number of bigotted/racist statements posted here. I thought that the readership was a little more intelligent than that. Sadly I guess it's not.

The fact that morons like that can work a computer and get online is broken.

We need to make computers more complex. ;D

Posted by: Joshua Wood at June 22, 2005 05:06 PM

"A solution I would recommend is that all atm's be programmed for English (this is still America, right?) and then a non-english speaking visitor(residents should learn the language) would have a button to press to be able to toggle through many language choices to their desired one.

Posted by: Kent at June 22, 2005 01:06 PM"

My bank's ATM's offer English, but if I ignore the request, put in my PIN and hit enter, it goes straight to English menues anyway. Because if they only offered Spanish, Chinese, and Hmong, then their English-speaking customer would call and complain, "This is broken! They didn't offer me English!"

Did you know the Declaration of Independence was published in German as much as English, due to all the German speakers here? Had we had a vote as to a national language, we could just as well have had German as our national tongue.

People who say, "If you're gonna live in the U.S., learn to speak English!" must be ignorant of the fact that, in Law, we do not have a national language. If you think that is broken, take it up with your congressman. Norm Mineta, the Transportation Secretary, pushed strongly for that when he was a congressman in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Posted by: Boris at June 22, 2005 05:51 PM

Ola! Well, I don't really speak good english, but I read and write better than I sound, sound's hard to believe, well ask may non-americans living here (legally or illegaly). In Spain where I am a citizen, our ATM's are all in english and we in our country have to learn english as a second language in order to understand, communicate and transact in this very global society, We do have people complaining that these machines should have SPANISH as a standard language and have people who speak in english choose their language in english to no avail, we must all live with an english speaking world. I am from spain but I speak chinese and a bit of an english (maybe that's the reason why I cannot speak fluent english, my toungue is twisted as it is) but not all is as "lucky" as me so we all have to live with a "broken" ATM, one that speaks english to all of us. I believe in this thing called patience and most of the threads I've read here sounds like they just ran out of them, we all should live differently now that US is not the only country generating the money for the world's economy, let's not forget that we all lived through times where ATM's are rare and lining up to get cash in the bank was "the only way". So another step shouldn't be the end of the world.

My 2 cents. (now I wish I can read this out loud without my "freakin" accent)

Posted by: Spanish at June 22, 2005 07:16 PM

Living in Las Vegas, NV we get tourists from all over the world. Our ATM's offer English and Spanish as the only choices. What does that say to the visitors from Japan and European countries?

Posted by: Jim at June 22, 2005 07:56 PM

hola! no habla ingles. por favor translate? gracias.

Posted by: senor_pablo at June 22, 2005 08:16 PM

The issue here is not that ATMs should only offer English (or Spanish, or ...). Removing language options would be a step back, in fact. The problem is that ATM users have to select their preferred language every time. This extra step, however small, is annoying. And the "broken" ATMs can be easily "fixed" by simply storing the preferred language on the card inserted into it. This is not a privacy issue as your bank already knows your primary language, after all, you talked to them when you set up your account.

This way, everyone can be served in their preferred language.

Posted by: Hans Van Deun at June 22, 2005 08:23 PM

Salut! Je ne comprends pas anglais. Est-ce que vous pouvais traduisez en francais? Merci!

Posted by: Pierre at June 22, 2005 08:25 PM

Hallo! Ich spreche nicht Englisch. Können Sie zum Deutschen übersetzen? Danke.

Posted by: Hans at June 22, 2005 08:27 PM

Geez, there's a lot of people posting.

Boris- Though English may not be the nat'l language, (i thought it was, maybe i'm wrong) the majority of people here speak it. If you live here, you should at least be able to order una hamburguesa in english. If you move to Mexico, you should learn Spanish too.

Jim- That's broken. I think that to make money, banks should cater to tourists as much as possible.

Spanish- That sounds weird. I thought everybody in Spain spoke Spanish. Of course, i've never been there, but i kinda assumed...

Anyway, i think i agree with Kent's first statement. There are too many foreign languages to list on one page, so why can't they toggle through a list? Is that too racist to ask? I think that if you think Bigoted means 'Someone who thinks people in America should have a working knowledge of English' then you are broken.

Posted by: Bob at June 22, 2005 08:30 PM

Non capisco l'inglese. Potete tradurre per me?

Posted by: Fredrico at June 22, 2005 08:30 PM

I'm sorry for referring to speakers of other languages as 'they'. Please don't skewer me for that.

Posted by: Bob at June 22, 2005 08:31 PM

JM: The ATM at the Bank of America I go to is even worse than the one you mentioned-- it uses the 'ding' sound to indicate that you've successfully selected an option from the menu!

But it, too, remembers what language I speak...

Posted by: codeman38 at June 22, 2005 08:38 PM

meester pablo:

if you cant speak spanish, use the babelfish translator at altavista

p.s. translate en espanol is traduzca

Posted by: dont start the "this isnt broken" at June 22, 2005 11:21 PM

I have the perfect solution which everybody will hopefully agree to! Why don't we have ATM screens on which Telly-Tubbies will ask what you want to do? Then we wouldn't have a language problem! If three year olds can understand Telly-Tubbies then so can you! It's FLAWLESS!

Posted by: falafel at June 23, 2005 12:54 AM

Bob thanks for the back-up other posters I didn't mean to sound biggoted in fact my solution was to offer more language choices than just spanish and english. English should be the default on the system then a toggle available for many selections. Some would say we already have our own language American-english. Yes our language differs somewhat than that of England(albeit not much).

meester pablo not meaning to sound antagonistic but, how do you suppose someone use an on-line translator while standing at an atm?

Posted by: kent at June 23, 2005 01:10 AM

Often the way we approach usability is to mimic positive real world experiences.

In an actual bank teller situation, a user would like to find a teller who speaks their language and approach them for their transaction. Perhaps the signs above the teller would indicate languages spoken. Then, each time the customer returned, they would know which line to go to automatically, without having to be screened for language each time.

Therefore, in our electronic transaction, I should be able to select once and have that choice remembered so I don't have to go through the same thing each time.

I agree with the posters who feel that adding an extra keystroke isn't such a big deal, but ATMs are about convenience and speed, so why not speed them up as much as possible?

Posted by: Michael McWatters at June 23, 2005 08:33 AM

My take is that we should BOTH, declare English the official language and make it easy for all visitors to interact with our country.

We are part of the Global Village and need to be a leader in an effort to UNITE people (leadership is what the US is about, right?)

If the ATM's owner finds it a value-add to make language choices automatic then it will happen. Is it broken? naaahhh - not any more than your new car with roll up windows is broken.

Posted by: Bruce DeBoer at June 23, 2005 10:45 AM

Why all the language choices and not just English? Because banks are businesses and the easier it is for people to use a machine, the more money the banks make. This is the case for tourists and immigrants; illegal and legal.

Which would you rather have, by the way? Illegal immigrants from China or Mexico keeping their cash under their mattresses, or putting that cash in the bank where it is invested in the overall economy? And go ahead: build a wall. Keep everyone out. Who, though, is going to bus your tables or landscape your yard?

Posted by: Conant at June 23, 2005 01:47 PM

Re: U.S. having an "official" language:

Let me rescind my earlier statement that Norm Mineta wanted the offical language; it was Senator Hayakawa.

Posted by: Boris at June 23, 2005 01:48 PM

Since these comments seem to have degenerated into complaints, let me add: I would gladly scroll through a list of all known languages on an ATM if the banks would stop charging me those annoying, exhorbitant fees for withdrawing my own cash.

Posted by: Gene at June 23, 2005 09:40 PM

if the banks would stop charging me those annoying, exhorbitant fees for withdrawing my own cash.

Gene sounds like you should switch banks my transactions are free

Posted by: kent at June 24, 2005 07:53 AM

Koy mere desh sey hai ither. may uskasath bath carna chatha hu

Posted by: YO at June 26, 2005 09:28 PM

Fascinating, Yo. I never knew that.

Please keep comments in English! Do we have a translator for Yo?

Posted by: Bob at June 26, 2005 10:24 PM

Many years back there was a tossup which language to use as official language in the USA. The tweaked vote went to English with German getting sent to second (even though there was a majority for German). Same applies to the fact that presidents have to be born on US soil. That was put in place to fend off a candidate from Germany.

So why are all the ATMs broken and never offer German as an option ?

And why are all those people broken, who call these devices "ATM machines". ATM is an acronym for "Automated Teller Machine". So an "ATM machine" is like the white mustang ?

Posted by: David at July 8, 2005 09:26 AM

The first time I used an ATM in the US it greeted me using my name (never had that before), and then asked me what language I spoke.

I can see there's a useful piece of information missing from the ATM card, then. I wonder when they will add it?

Posted by: Andrew at July 14, 2005 07:38 PM

I'm sick of being called a racist because I want an official language. I speak three languages, but I still resent having to click through a menu to choose english for crap. I don't speak Spanish, I don't want to learn Spanish.

To ensure basic smooth operation of civil government, it only makes sense to have one official language. It does not deprive anyone of their ethnic heritage to simply KNOW English. You do not have to USE English. You will have to KNOW english.

I have been to another country on three separate occasions, Mexico, Canada (Quebec) and Japan. I felt like an IDIOT when I couldn't speak to people because I didn't know the language. What I want to know is, why is it that some people can leave their country of origin and take up residence in a new one, not speaking the language, and not feel like an idiot let alone feel entitled to assistance.

To the person who mentioned that we are a nation of immigrants: Hey look, we all speak English now! Maybe you new guys should get on the bandwagon.

Incidentally, the claim that German was almost made the official language is false. in 1750, a law was rejected in Virginia that would have published court documents in German as well as English. It failed to pass.

Lastly: I have worked as both a busboy AND a landscaper. Get off your high horse. Maybe Americans just don't want to work for slave wages. In my opinion, it is the promotion of hiring illegal immigrants for pennies on the dollar that is racist.

I'm sorry I had to address this. I believe inconveniencing upwards of 80% of the population to handle not only any minority language but merely ONE of them, is broken. It should be fixed either by remembering one's language choice, or by offering a menu option that does not interrupt the majority of users.

If you are an immigrant, welcome. It is in your best interest both to learn English as quickly as possible, and secondly to avoid inconveniencing current residents who have the ability to legislate away future immigration allowances.

Posted by: Erik at July 18, 2005 12:25 PM

Posted by: kip at July 31, 2005 05:42 AM

Why do drive-thru ATMs have braile on them? Blind drivers? I think not!

Posted by: Kenny Blackmon at August 5, 2005 02:44 AM

Hmm. This is America, speak English. If it was designed for 'everyone's accessibility' then why aren't the bloody things asking if you speak Swahili? I immigrated to the United States, I speak English, and my vocabulary is probably bigger than some native speakers, now why can't these people figure out what "Please enter your PIN number." or "Please enter amount of widthraw in denominations of $10.00/$20.00." means. How lazy do you have to be to not learn what that means?

Posted by: Fritz at November 7, 2005 11:26 PM

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